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WHATEVER

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Sitcoms, soap operas, miniseries, and feature films—all have tackled storylines dealing with HIV and AIDS. Still, the overall vacuity demonstrated in the Los Angeles premiere of this whiny melodrama by playwright Julian Sheppard is smothering at times. Sheppard's piece follows a circuitously intertwined group of twentysomethings who have, for the most part, the sexual restraint of rabbits—and how they cope once it is revealed that a common bed partner has tested positive.

Vignettes play out in rapid-fire succession, mostly missing the mark, as these characters stumble through Sheppard's storyline. Perhaps considered contemporarily cutting-edge when first written, it now plays as stilting histrionics with the F-word gratuitously filling every known grammatical category. Considering the pain this subject can carry, Sheppard's script becomes superficially prurient as it culminates with an unintentionally ludicrous sendup of an Oprah Winfrey–type show, hosted by actor Caryn Ruby as the insensitive Margo Heathcote.

Partial credit to director Francine M. Sondelli and her merry band of nine for giving it their best shot, but when saddled with lines such as, "The real world is not a sprint, it's a journey," and "He was so slow it took him 30 minutes to make Minute Rice," the philosophical musings are hard to overcome. Gold stars, though, for believability and character commitment to John Paul Karliak as Roy, a gay man facing the depressing news of his positive status; Ruben Dario as Adam, Roy's blind date; and Kyle Whisner, whose four scene-stealing roles are blessed relief.

Additional problems emanate from a highly cluttered set depicting five different locations leading to distinctively distracting entrances and exits. Equally off-putting is Shawn J. Arteaga's front-oriented lighting design, which gives everything a flat appearance, ranging from oddly dim to totally washed out. The uncredited costuming is adequate. All in all, this extended one-act, with the remarkably ironic title, feels like an acting class final project. It's admirable that $1 from each ticket sold goes to the American Foundation for AIDS Research, but, artistically, this vehicle needs a major tuneup.

"Whatever," presented by Cedar Production at the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre, 11006 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7:30 p.m. Sept. 11-Oct. 10. $15. (310) 210-0910.

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